Trenton — An industry-dominated task force to recommend an overhaul of state anti-pollution permits and policies will work in secret, according to an e-mail from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Lisa Jackson to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Commissioner Jackson also rebuffed PEER recommendations that materials submitted to the task force are made a public record and that task force members be barred from lobbying DEP for their clients.
Commissioner Jackson created the Permit Efficiency Review Task Force in mid-March to identify administrative, regulatory and statutory changes needed to make DEP programs “timely and efficient.” The task force will have full access to DEP staff and materials and will report back in mid-July.
On March 25, 2008, New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe wrote Jackson asking that task force sessions be open to the public, materials submitted to the task force be made publicly available and that task force members “be precluded from having any contracts, pending regulatory approvals, or financial relationships with the Department” during the 120-day life of the task force.
In a return e-mail on the evening of April 2, 2008, Commissioner Jackson denied all of PEER’s requests:
- Public input “can only occur once the Task Force has completed its analysis and compiled the group’s thoughts and recommendations. At that time, I will determine how to most effectively seek and obtain input from the public”; and
- “I do not consider it necessary or reasonable to restrict members of the Task Force or their respective employers from having other business before the Department.”
“We all know the state is in tough economic straits but candor and openness do not cost a dime and may save us bundles down the road,” Wolfe stated. “How can the public intelligently review the task force findings if the material upon which those findings are based is a state secret?”
The conflict of interest concern is based, in part, on DEP staff being told that their jobs may depend on what the task force recommends. An April 2, 2008 DEP memo recounting Jackson’s budget briefings states:
“Managers were instructed that they should consider the staff they have now as the most they will have, and they should look at ways to cut back on non essential services and prioritize their work. The Commissioner mentioned the Permit Task Force (subject of another postmaster message) as one way that she will get ideas for how to handle things more efficiently.”
“Commissioner Jackson is giving these task force appointees from industry a position of undue influence and then refusing to acknowledge that foxes may use the opportunity to sample the henhouse,” Wolfe added. “Under these circumstances, for a DEP professional to say ‘no’ to a regulatory favor requested by a task force member would require a profile in courage.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability